Gilgamesh (A New English Version by Stephen Mitchell)by Anonymous, Stephen Mitchell
Vivid, enjoyable and comprehensible, the poet and pre-eminent translator Stephen Mitchell makes the oldest epic poem in the world accessible for the first time. Gilgamesh is a born leader, but in an attempt to control his growing arrogance, the Gods create Enkidu, a wild man, his equal in strength and courage. Enkidu is trapped by a temple prostitute, civilised
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Vivid, enjoyable and comprehensible, the poet and pre-eminent translator Stephen Mitchell makes the oldest epic poem in the world accessible for the first time. Gilgamesh is a born leader, but in an attempt to control his growing arrogance, the Gods create Enkidu, a wild man, his equal in strength and courage. Enkidu is trapped by a temple prostitute, civilised through sexual experience and brought to Gilgamesh. They become best friends and battle evil together. After Enkidu's death the distraught Gilgamesh sets out on a journey to find Utnapishtim, the survivor of the Great Flood, made immortal by the Gods to ask him the secret of life and death. Gilgamesh is the first and remains one of the most important works of world literature. Written in ancient Mesopotamia in the second millennium B.C., it predates the Iliad by roughly 1,000 years. Gilgamesh is extraordinarily modern in its emotional power but also provides an insight into the values of an ancient culture and civilisation.
The Washington Post
The New York Times
"A flowing, unbroken version that reads as effortlessly as a novel...with startlingly familiar hopes, fears, and lusts. Mitchell...cracks open the lessons in Gilgamesh by rebuilding its clay fragments into a poem easy on the eyes and the transcultural imagination....Vibrant, earnest, unfussily accessible.... The muscular eloquence and rousing simplicity of Mitchell's four-beat line effectively unleash the grand vehemence of the epic's battle scenes, and the characters' ominous visions emerge with uncanny clarity."
The New York Times Book Review
"Utterly enthralling reading, thanks to Mr. Mitchell's skill and flair in recasting the ancient text."
The New York Sun
"Seamus Heaney isn't the only one intent on making the classics relevant to our times. Mitchell...offers a limpid retelling of this story about absolute power.... Its message of love, loss, and endurance [is] rendered in fresh, forceful language."
Los Angeles Times
"The mysterious, sinewy surge of his verse [is] thoroughly modern, yet an uncanny evocation of the primeval."
The Boston Globe
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Read an Excerpt
GilgameshA New English Version
By Stephen Mitchell
Free PressCopyright © 2004 Stephen Mitchell
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Oldest Story in the World
In Iraq, when the dust blows, stopping men and tanks, it brings with it memories of an ancient world, much older than Islam or Christianity. Western civilization originated from that place between the Tigris and the Euphrates, where Hammurabi created his legal code and where Gilgamesh was written - the oldest story in the world, a thousand years older than the Iliad or the Bible. Its hero was a historical king who reigned in the Mesopotamian city of Uruk in about 2750 bce. In the epic, he has an intimate friend, Enkidu, a naked wild man who has been civilized through the erotic arts of a temple priestess. With him Gilgamesh battles monsters, and when Enkidu dies, he is inconsolable. He sets out on a desperate journey to find the one man who can tell him how to escape death.
Part of the fascination of Gilgamesh is that, like any great work of literature, it has much to tell us about ourselves. In giving voice to grief and the fear of death, perhaps more powerfully than any book written after it, in portraying love and vulnerability and the quest for wisdom, it has become a personal testimony for millions of readers in dozens of languages. But it also has a particular relevance in today's world, with its polarized fundamentalisms, each side fervently believing in its own righteousness, each on a crusade, or jihad, against what it perceives as an evil enemy. The hero of this epic is an antihero, a superman (a superpower, one might say) who doesn't know the difference between strength and arrogance. By preemptively attacking a monster, he brings on himself a disaster that can only be overcome by an agonizing journey, a quest that results in wisdom by proving its own futility. The epic has an extraordinarily sophisticated moral intelligence. In its emphasis on balance and in its refusal to side with either hero or monster, it leads us to question our dangerous certainties about good and evil.
I began this version of Gilgamesh because I had never been convinced by the language of any translation of it that I'd read. I wanted to find a genuine voice for the poem: words that were lithe and muscular enough to match the power of the story. If I have succeeded, readers will discover that, rather than standing before an antiquity in a glass case, they have entered a literary masterpiece that is as startlingly alive today as it was three and a half millennia ago.
Gilgamesh is a work that in the intensity of its imagination stands beside the great stories of Homer and the Bible. Yet for two thousand years, all traces of it were lost. The baked clay tablets on which it was inscribed in cuneiform characters lay buried in the rubble of cities across the ancient Near East, waiting for people from another world to read them. It wasn't until 1853 that the first fragments were discovered among the ruins of Nineveh, and the text wasn't deciphered and translated for several decades afterward. The great poet Rainer Maria Rilke may have been the first reader discerning enough to recognize its true literary stature. "Gilgamesh is stupendous!" he wrote at the end of 1916. "I... consider it to be among the greatest things that can happen to a person." "I have immersed myself in [it], and in these truly gigantic fragments I have experienced measures and forms that belong with the supreme works that the conjuring Word has ever produced." In Rilke's consciousness, Gilgamesh, like a magnificent Aladdin's palace that has instantly materialized out of nowhere, makes its first appearance as a masterpiece of world literature.
The story of its discovery and decipherment is itself as fabulous as a tale from The Thousand and One Nights. A young English traveler named Austen Henry Layard, who was passing through the Middle East on his way to Ceylon, heard that there were antiquities buried in the mounds of what is now the city of Mosul, halted his journey, and began excavations in 1844. These mounds turned out to contain the ruined palaces of Nineveh, the ancient capital of Assyria, including what was left of the library of the last great Assyrian king, Ashurbanipal (668-627 B.C.E.). "In amazement" Layard and his assistant Hormuzd Rassam "found room after room lined with carved stone bas-reliefs of demons and deities, scenes of battle, royal hunts and ceremonies; doorways flanked by enormous winged bulls and lions; and, inside some of the chambers, tens of thousands of clay tablets inscribed with the curious, and then undeciphered, cuneiform ('wedge-shaped') script." Over twenty-five thousand of these tablets were shipped back to the British Museum.
When cuneiform was officially deciphered in 1857, scholars discovered that the tablets were written in Akkadian, an ancient Semitic language cognate with Hebrew and Arabic. Fifteen years went by before anyone noticed the tablets on which Gilgamesh was inscribed. Then, in 1872, a young British Museum curator named George Smith realized that one of the fragments told the story of a Babylonian Noah, who survived a great flood sent by the gods. "On looking down the third column," Smith wrote, "my eye caught the statement that the ship rested on the mountains of Nizir, followed by the account of the sending forth of the dove, and its finding no resting-place and returning. I saw at once that I had here discovered a portion at least of the Chaldean account of the Deluge." To a Victorian this was a spectacular discovery, because it seemed to be independent corroboration of the historicity of the biblical Flood (Victorians believed that the Genesis story was much older than it is). When Smith saw these lines, according to a later account, he said, " 'I am the first man to read that after more than two thousand years of oblivion!' Setting the tablet on the table," the account continues, "he jumped up and rushed about the room in a great state of excitement, and, to the astonishment of those present, began to undress himself." We aren't told if he took off just his coat or if he continued to strip down further. I like to imagine him in his euphoria going all the way and running stark naked, like Enkidu, among the astonished black-clad Victorian scholars.
Smith's announcement, made on December 3, 1872 to the newly formed Society of Biblical Archaeology, that he had discovered an account of the Flood on one of the Assyrian tablets caused a major stir, and soon more fragments of Gilgamesh were unearthed at Nineveh and in the ruins of other ancient cities. His translation of the fragments that had been discovered up to then was published in 1876. Though to a modern reader it seems quaint and almost surrealistic in its many mistaken guesses, and is often fragmentary to the point of incoherence, it was an important pioneering effort.
Today, more than a century and a quarter later, many more fragments have surfaced, the language is much better understood, and scholars can trace the history of the text with some degree of confidence. Briefly, here is the consensus.
Legends about Gilgamesh probably began to arise shortly after the death of the historical king. The earliest texts that have survived, which date from about 2100 BCE, are five separate and independent poems in Sumerian, entitled "Gilgamesh and Aga," "Gilgamesh and Huwawa," "Gilgamesh and the Bull of Heaven," "Gilgamesh and the Underworld," and "The Death of Gilgamesh." (Sumerian is a non-Semitic language unrelated to any other that we know, and is as distant from Akkadian as Chinese is from English. It became the learned language of ancient Mesopotamia and was part of the scribal curriculum.) These five poems - written in a leisurely, repetitive, hieratic style, much less condensed and vivid than the Akkadian epic - would have been familiar to later poets and editors.
The direct ancestor of the eleven clay tablets dug up at Nineveh is called the Old Babylonian version. It was written in Akkadian (of which Babylonian is a dialect) and dates from about 1700 B.C.E.; eleven fragments have survived, including three tablets that are almost complete. This version, though it paraphrases a few episodes in the Sumerian Gilgamesh texts, is an original poem, the first Epic of Gilgamesh. In its themes and its form, it is essentially the same poem as its Ninevite descendent: a story about friendship, the death of the beloved, and the quest for immortality.
Some five hundred years after the Old Babylonian version was written, a scholar-priest named Sîn-léqi-unninni revised and elaborated on it. His epic, which scholars call the Standard Version, is the basis for all modern translations. As of now, with seventy-three fragments discovered, slightly fewer than two thousand of the three thousand lines of the original text exist in readable, continuous form; the rest is damaged or missing, and there are many gaps in the sections that have survived.
We don't know exactly what Sîn-léqi-unninni's contribution to the Standard Version was, since so few fragments of the Old Babylonian version have survived for comparison. From what we can see, he is often a conservative editor, following the older version line for line, with few if any changes in vocabulary and word order. Sometimes, though, he expands or contracts, drops passages or adds them, and functions not as an editor but as an original poet. The two major passages that we know he added, the Prologue and the priestess Shamhat's speech inviting Enkidu to Uruk, have the vividness and density of great art.
The Gilgamesh that you are about to read is a sometimes free, sometimes close adaptation into English verse of Sîn-léqi-unninni's Standard Version. Even scholars making literal translations don't simply translate the Standard Version; they fill in some of the textual gaps with passages from other versions, the Old Babylonian being the most important. I have taken this practice further: occasionally, when the Standard Version is particularly fragmentary, I have supplemented it with passages from the Sumerian Gilgamesh poems. I have also added lines or short passages to bridge the gaps or to clarify the story. My intention throughout has been to re-create the ancient epic, as a contemporary poem, in the parallel universe of the English language.
Civilizing the Wild Man
Gilgamesh is the story of a hero's journey; one might say that it is the mother of all heroes' journeys, with its huge uninhibited mythic presences moving through a landscape of dream. It is also the story of how a man becomes civilized, how he learns to rule himself and therefore his people, and to act with temperance, wisdom, and piety. The poem begins with the city and ends with it.
In the first lines of his Prologue, Sîn-léqi-unninni states the breadth and depth of what his hero had endured: "He had seen everything, had experienced all emotions." The next seven lines tell us the essential details, not even bothering to mention the hero's name. Gilgamesh had traveled to the edge of the world and been granted knowledge of the primeval days of humanity; he had survived the journey and returned to restore the great temple of Ishtar and Uruk's then famous six-mile-long wall.
And now, after this summary, something fascinating happens. Sîn-léqi-unninni turns to his readers and invites them to survey the great city for themselves:
See how its ramparts gleam like copper in the sun. Climb the stone staircase, more ancient than the mind can imagine, approach the Eanna Temple, sacred to Ishtar, a temple that no king has equaled in size or beauty, walk on the wall of Uruk, follow its course around the city, inspect its mighty foundations, examine its brickwork, how masterfully it is built, observe the land it encloses: the palm trees, the gardens, the orchards, the glorious palaces and temples, the shops and marketplaces, the houses, the public squares.
It is a very strange and touching moment. The poet is ostensibly addressing an audience of ancient Babylonians in 1200 B.C.E., directing them to admire a city that was built in time immemorial. But the readers, as it turns out, are you and I. We are the ones who are being invited, more than three thousand years later, to walk on the wall of Uruk and observe the splendor and bustling life of the great city. The invitation is touching not because the city is in ruins and the civilization has been destroyed - this is not an ironic "Ozymandias" moment - but because in our imagination we can climb the ancient stone staircase and observe the lush gardens and orchards, the palaces and temples, the shops and marketplaces, the houses, the public squares, and share the poet's amazement and pride in his city.
Then Sîn-léqi-unninni's invitation becomes more intimate. "Find the cornerstone," he tells us, and under it the copper box that is marked with his name. Unlock it. Open the lid. Take out the tablet of lapis lazuli. Read how Gilgamesh suffered all and accomplished all.
I doubt whether even in 1200 B.C.E. this was meant to be taken literally. Even to an ancient Babylonian reader, the lines would have been vivid enough to make the physical act unnecessary. As we read the instructions, we can see ourselves finding the cornerstone, taking out the copper box, unlocking it, opening its lid, and taking out the priceless tablet of lapis lazuli, which turns out, in the end, to be the very poem we are about to read. We are looking beneath the surface of things, into the hidden places, the locked repositories of human experience. The trials that Gilgamesh himself is supposed to have written down long ago are now being revealed to us in words that, whether "carved on stone tablets" or printed on paper, create their own sense of authenticity. They issue directly from the source: if not from the historical Gilgamesh, then from a poet who has imagined that hero's experience intensely enough for it to be true.
The Old Babylonian poem that Sîn-léqi-unninni inherited begins with the phrase "Surpassing all kings." It describes Gilgamesh as a gigantic and manic young man (his name may mean "The Old Man is a Young Man"), a warrior, and, after his return, as a good king and benefactor to his people: a combination of Goliath and David. But to begin with he is a tyrant. When we first enter the poem, there is an essential imbalance in the city; something has gone drastically wrong. The man of unsurpassable courage and inexhaustible energy has become a monster of selfishness; the shepherd has become a wolf. He oppresses the young men, perhaps with forced labor, and oppresses the young women, perhaps with his ravenous sexual appetite. Because he is an absolute monarch (and two-thirds divine into the bargain), no one dares to criticize him. The people call out to heaven, like the Israelite slaves in Exodus, and their cry is heard.
Excerpted from Gilgamesh by Stephen Mitchell Copyright © 2004 by Stephen Mitchell. Excerpted by permission.
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author of The Western Canon and The Book of J
Harrington Professor of Religion, Princeton University
author of Lives of Moral Leadership, The Call of Service, and The Spiritual Life of Children and James Agee Professor of Social Ethics, Harvard University
author of The Snow Leopard and At Play in the Fields of the Lord
Meet the Author
Stephen Mitchell is widely known for his original and definitive versions of spiritual writings and poetry. His many books include The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, Tao Te Ching, The Gospel According to Jesus and Bhagavad Gita.
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